On current trends, Northern Ireland will leave the Union
Demographics as well as politics are against the Unionists
Demography isn’t destiny but it contributes powerfully to it. This week’s Northern Ireland 2021 Census release, showing Catholics outnumbering Protestants for the first time, does not in itself doom the Union. It should, however, represent a major warning to Unionists on both sides of the Irish Sea.
That is because the Union now depends on the votes of Catholics and liberal-Left Protestants who backed Remain in overwhelming numbers. These people do not have a strong British identity, but it is coming under more strain in a region where the Northern Ireland Protocol means Brexit is still a live issue.
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DUP politicians often score points with their own base by trampling on the shibboleths of these voters, while few London-based Tories understand what makes them tick at all. That isn’t a good platform from which to win their votes in a border poll. From here, I’d be surprised if the Union makes it to 2040.
According to the census, the proportion of people from a ‘Protestant background’ fell from 48% in 2011 to 43% last year while the proportion from Catholic backgrounds rose slightly from 45% to 46%. Religion and national identity are not always the same thing in Northern Ireland — there are Catholic Unionists and Protestant Nationalists. But the proportion of those identifying as British also fell, identically, from 48% to 43% in the same censuses. Locked-in demographic trends mean those Protestant and British figures will continue to decline as the years go on.
Many people expected a Brexit effect, with some Remainers who had hitherto identified as British opting for an Irish or Northern Irish identity, but this has not been borne out by the data. The figures instead indicate that the liberals from Protestant backgrounds who helped deliver the region’s 56% vote for Remain had already identified as Irish or Northern Irish rather than British.
These detribalised liberal Protestants are a significant part of the swing vote that will decide any border poll, along with ‘soft’ Nationalists who were traditionally more interested in civil rights and cultural recognition than constitutional change. These groups overwhelmingly support the staunchly pro-EU Alliance Party and SDLP, backed Remain by massive margins, and have been royally angered by Brexit.
Northern Ireland’s Assembly in May delivered a 53-37 majority for pro-Protocol parties, and these voters are rather wound up by the DUP and UK attempts to renegotiate it, which they fear may leave the region at ground zero of a UK-EU trade war. Common sense might dictate quietly allowing the Protocol to become the new normal, and this key slice of the electorate could then get back to worrying about rare vinyls and new IPAs rather than economic armageddon.
Unionists have long consoled themselves with the myth of the ‘garden centre Prod’ — a hundred thousand voters in Greater Belfast who sat out normal elections, repelled by Unionism’s political style, but who were resolutely British and would turn out en masse in any border poll. Elections since 2016 have instead shown these voters have a complex identity and are mainly socially liberal and pro-European.
One must also note that there is no obvious pathway to a border poll from here, and the Nationalist vote has also shrunk slightly in recent years due to the Alliance surge. But at some point, a UK general election result will make the SNP kingmakers just as their IPP antecedents were in the decades before the First World War. Then Unionism would face an existential referendum with barely two in five votes safely in the bag, and the swing voters mostly people whom they don’t comprehend.
There is a fundamental lack of cultural literacy about Northern Nationalists and ‘nationally-minded’ liberals among Tory politicians and commentators. Few seem to understand, for example, why the failure to install Michelle O’Neill as First Minister after Sinn Féin’s first place in May’s elections is a totemic issue even for many who frankly despise her party. Unthinking Telegraph editorials are easily weaponised by the Derry set. Interestingly, however, King Charles seems to ‘get it’.
The Union is certainly defendable, but with a shrinking minority of Northern Ireland people identifying instinctively with Britishness, doing so will take more imagination and empathy than the DUP or English Tories have shown so far.
I live in Derry. The public sector is by far the largest employer in N Ireland and here in Derry it is overwhelmingly so. 60% is the figure currently mooted for those in employment. The working-class of Derry (they still exist) will vote in a tribal way for Nationalist candidates locally and in the laughably incompetent Stormont Assembly elections but if asked to break the link with Westminster are first and foremost aware of the economics. We live close to the border and know how expensive life in the South is- especially and crucially in health care.
Derry has large numbers of people dependent on benefits, mobility vehicles of all types and the DLA is dubbed “the Derry living allowance” by local wits. Romantic notions of a United Ireland – irrespective of legitimate historical issues- are no match for immediate, personal financial security. The South cannot afford us – and here in the NW our traditional ties are closer to Scotland, no matter what our religious or tribal affiliations. I agree about the noisy “liberal elites”but they are by no means in the majority. As Dervla Murphy once wrote “Derry is different.”
Sounds about right to me: 3 points
1. Liz Truss will dismantle the Public Sector wherever she can. Looks like NI may be yop of the list??
2. Liz Truss will eviscerate Benefits so looks like you’re top of the list again??
3. Since you are “close to Scotland” let’s have a new Federation of NI + Scotland + ROI.. Three autonomous nations with a good balance.. Wales might join us later and even Brittany and who knows possibly even Cornwall. The Federation of Celtic States eh? How does that sound?
As a know-nothing American I like that idea. And I am an Anglophile.
It sounds like an economic disaster!
I suppose you could always export coracles and harps.
Not the misty-eyed Celtic nationalism again! Scotland – a much more Protestant and anti Catholic nation than England. Brittany? There is not a chance in hell that either the Bretons would wish to leave France, or that the French unitary state would permit it.
Thanks for this – sums up my take as an expat Irish Scot. The writer seems to think religious identity in Northern Ireland trumps economic welfare – it doesn’t, and if anything economics will become even more influential as younger generations stop identifying themselves by old fashioned, restrictive religions.
Folk in Northern Ireland ain’t stupid, unlike my brethren in Scotland who keep voting for an incompetent SNP.
I’m a keen cyclist and wonder how Dervla Murphy managed her epic tours on her rudimentary bikes.
….and, as has been pointed out out in the past by a great ambassador for the city – ‘you can’t eat a flag’. Everything in its time and place.
The south is much more heavily taxed, which is one reason why the poorest 5% in the Republic have 63% more disposable income than the poorest 5% in the UK, even allowing for the higher cost of living. Pensions, unemployment benefit and credits to low income working families are far higher south of the border. Life expectancy is a couple of years higher, and government spending per capita on the semi-private health service is higher than that spent on the NHS.
A recent analysis suggested that applying the southern tax and benefit regime to Northern Ireland would leave 70% of people better off, and generate nearly a billion euro more revenue to offset against the subvention. It’s likely on reunification that the new government would focus on aligning currencies, taxes, benefits and enterprise policy first, leaving the NHS, PSNI and education under the auspices of a devolved assembly. Most public sector jobs would be retained, at least in the short term.
The $64 million question is whether the top 30% in NI would be willing to pay for this, let alone the likely transition costs that would be felt across the island. In the south, the higher salaries earned at technology and pharma multi-nationals mean the top 30% are better off despite high taxation and the cost of living, but that was after decades of investment in education. Northern Ireland has some of the best A Level results in the UK alongside some of the worst school drop-out rates for working-class children. It might take years before the IPA-swilling liberal classes saw any economic benefits from reunification.
Actually the south not being able to support the north is a complete myth. Last year the Irish domestic budget was 100 billion. It’s earnings were 107 billion, it had a surplus of 7 billion. With the higher rate of corporate tax due to come in next year it’s surplus will grow. Ni gets a subvention of 10 billion pa from U.K., but not all is actually spent in NI, some goes on NO contribution to U.K. wide projects, like the 300 million of Ni subvention spent on Trident. The actual amount spent in NI is difficult to calculate but it is a lot less than 10 billion. A state with a current 100 billion annual domestic spend and a 7 billion surplus can probably afford NI, possibly with minimal tax rises, if indeed any!
Interesting perspective Geraldine. Thanks for it.
At the risk of receiving a hail of brickbats, I have always considered it a mistake by the then British government to acquiesce in the creation of Northern Ireland.
Correct. It was entirely unnecessary. If GB had any b***s it could easily have subdued Carson’s mob. A federal solution was the obvious one. Indeed, contemporaneous documents show clearly it was expected to be a short-term solution only, in 1922.
There is a massive cultural convergence happening on the island of Ireland. In the North, the author rightly points out that the “detriablized liberal Protestants” will make or break the connection with the UK over the coming decade. And yet at the same time, the middle class in the rest of the island have become indistinguishable from such liberal protestants – liberal on social matters, never the darkening the door of a church, professional, degree-educated, urban, pro-EU, etc.
Yep: they’ve grown up before our very eyes! Polarisation has failed, eventually. If only the DUP could wake up and smell the ☕
Although the incumbent “Conservative & Unionist Party” of government will continue to pay lip service to retaining the union, i have a strong suspicion that the advent of a Catholic majority will have them quietly hoping a united island of Ireland becomes a reality by some means or other in the not too distant future.
The planned renegotiation of the post-Brexit protocol still deserves to go ahead (in my opinion) if only to push the EU influence further out of what remains UK territory – for now. If this process helps engender a peaceful but unstoppable process that leads to Northern Ireland leaving the UK to rejoin their historical family across the order, bring it on.
Fair enough! But we’re also going to have Scotland in a new Federation of Celtic States! ..maybe Wales too and possibly even Cornwall! Watja tinko dat?
Keep fantasising Liam! An economic nightmare as the celts wallow in nostalgia, as they are always wont to do without the balance provided by the Union, and they desperately hope that tourists might save them.
I for one will not visit Wales a beautiful country but why should I pay a tourist tax?
Who’s going to pay for this federation? I believe in the event of unification the tax take in the Republic would have to rise by around a quarter in order to fund the deficit that Northern Ireland currently runs. With Scotland also running at a loss, and Ireland largely reliant on staying as the EUs tax haven where are the funds going to come from?
If there’s a Referendum and the majority wish to leave the Union and join the Republic, well let them go. I suspect it will unsettle the New Republic for at least a decade, just as German Re-unification was unsettling.
But the New UK should also ensure that the Common Travel Area is reviewed and altered if necessary.
The common travel area overarches centuries of close cooperation. The NI situation is neither here nor there on that issue.
Incidentally, the enormous cost of Reunification will have to be borne by the UK. Of course the EU will also assist. It shouldn’t be too difficult. ROI is a rich country and the divide between NI and ROI is miniscule compared to the GDR situation. Piece o’
Why should the UK have to fund somewhere that no longer wishes to be part of it in the event of Northern Ireland leaving the Union? It’ll be on the hook for a few peoples pensions but that will be it, if Ireland wants to absorb Northern Ireland then they will have to wear the costs
In terms of the UK paying so much as a penny towards Irish unification, respectfully, you can get stuffed.
No, the costs of unification, which I thought you said in any case would be nugatory, would be borne by the Republic.. That is what being a sovereign self governing nation implies. The EU? In other words the taxpayers of Germany and the Netherlands – good luck with that!
And when, after unification, a Sinn Fein government of all Ireland persecutes the Protestants of former Northern Ireland, which is inevitable in our current identity grievance culture, we can watch the Irish deal with it from afar.
I know both sides well, and I’m not confident that the unionists can ever let go of their grievances.
I don’t see a referendum happening on unification until it becomes clear that’s what the public in NI actually wants. I still think we’re some way off that.
Unlike Putin most of us in England have no great desire to retain control over areas where the majority don’t want to be part of Britain. If NI , Scotland, Wales or any other portion of the United Kingdom want to leave so be it – even if it makes travelling within the former UK more complicated. It may be disappointing to those who would prefer to retain British citizenship but thems the breaks as Boris might put it.
British citizenship is not a problem silly: joint citizenship is allowed by both jurisdictions. The common travel area is to the benefit of all sides. I see no point in eliminating that unless you rate spite as a viable option. Btw if they all leave, the country will no longer be the UK.. It’ll be England. The IOM and CIs are not part of the UK are they? It’ll be a relief for you to offload all those drains on your prosperity…
Ah no, once it’s unified the GFA no longer applies, and then the U.K. electorate and the EU won’t tolerate the common travel area or joint citizenship as our increasing proportion of ethnic minority voters will object at the inconsistency of that arrangement with their related countries of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
What’s forgotten in this article is that nationality is a two way street. Northern nationalists don’t just need to win the North, they need to win the South. And crucially, the path to victory in each jurisdiction is very different.
To win in the south, nationalists have to appeal beyond base economic sense to a glorious nationalist future, with a vision of an Irish only island that excludes brits.
To win in the North, nationalists have to convince protestants that their culture and identity would be secure in a new Ireland.
Both of these can’t be true. I know Sinn Fein are masters of dissembling and lies, but in an all Ireland campaign it will catch up with them.
They therefore can’t win. At least not until they completely change the electorate in the Republic.
Good to see more balanced articles appearing about the British-Irish relationship.
I’m inclined to suggest Gerry, that you give up an update after the dreaded winter. I believe that will sharpen some of the raggy edges you refer to.
I would also suggest that the demographic that is Protestant* and pro EU rather than fyed in the wool Unionist might include a large number of businessmen who are doing extremely well** by having a foot in both camps so to speak. That being so they will be very happy with the status quo (and, paradoxically might be opposed to Reunification).
** NI’s GDP grown is the strongest in the UK since the Protocol, having been the weakest always before that!
* Protestant in outlook more than in religion: religion doesn’t matter anyore, obviously!
**The DUP diehards are like the expats in the Costa del Sol who supported Brexit (thereby shooting themselves in the foot).. they just can’t help themselves!
You’re having a laugh – GDP growth with a majority of jobs in government or government funded organisations. What happens when that stops?
‘get back to worrying about rare vinyls and new IPAs’
I welcome the end of the Union and the unfettering of England, personally. The bloated NI public sector is a massive drain of my taxes.
You are absolutely, totally and completely Wright….not to mention your Government’s involvement in yet another military expedition in an arena in which they have no financial or strategic justification……I do wonder….
It’s the DUP and the Tory right that keep on getting up everyone’s nose. There is no underlying animosity between the Irish and the British. Quite the opposite. It’s the left-overs from the Glorious Revolution that keeps setting the agenda in Ireland. The Catholics in the 6 counties was always the group caught in the middle.
Firstly there is the usual dismissal of the main British governing party and the one until recently in Northern Ireland – which is quite a caveat!
There is probably “underlying animosity” between Ukrainians and Russians either! If you think that a dismantling of a state and, as they would see it, a forcible unification of the Unionist minority would be a piece of cake, you must be remarkably naïve. We had decades of civil war in Northern Ireland waged by the Provos – why are we so sanguine that a Loyalist version of this wouldn’t arise in opposition to a united Ireland?
Economics first? C’mon, have we forgotten Brexit? Or are we blanking that memory out (understandable) and just remembering IndyRef?
If/when a Border poll happens (and it’s some years away yet) factors we are not yet aware of may well tip the balance either way – e.g whether we recover from the current UK muddle; whether the EU could buttress Ireland etc. These are unknowns at this time.
I wonder if the people of the South would welcome it? It could not only have a public services funding dilemma but a security risk from loyalist diehards. One wonders what tragic reaction might be stimulated if the likelihood of a unification result from a border poll increased.
But could one place great faith in cold logic being the determinant in how people will eventually decide? Centuries of emotion may generate more allegiance and sense of history than we can entirely comprehend.
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